As a writer it’s easy to despair at films when they are so often subject to indignities such as producer-imposed cuts, glued-on happy endings, hacked edits to adjust length, reshoots to address the concerns of trial audiences etc etc. These things may be considered necessary by a studio to protect their financial investment but it doesn’t say much for the film’s status as a work of art. A novel on the other hand is much more likely to be the creative vision of a single author – edited, yes, but not hacked about in anything like the way many films are.
In Bruges is a remarkable exception to the norm in that a writer’s vision has been allowed to remain relatively unscathed in the final cut – primarily due to the fact that the writer is the same man as the director: Martin McDonagh. McDonagh, who is a multi-Olivier award winner for his stage plays, has gone on record to say how hard it was:
“I had to become a director to protect the scripts … In Bruges was relentless and exhausting. I had to deal with them [Focus Films, the production company] trying to change anything they could change. And Focus are supposed to be supportive, indie-filmmaker-friendly people. Scumbags. It was constant war, but they never won.”
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
As a result, In Bruges is a writer’s delight. The dialogue bristles with jokes. Plot points and motifs resonate across the length of the film, just as they would in a well-constructed novel. From the three attacks on Americans (one turns out to be Canadian), to the karate discussion leading to the karate slice on the dwarf, to the transformed and ironic echo of the shot child and the shot dwarf, to the false church confession and later discussion of religious paintings, there are lovely little touches scattered throughout the film.
What stands out from In Bruges, even after repeated viewings, is just how funny it is. There are so many great comic lines and just as many moments of beautiful comic timing. One way of looking at the film is as an extended stand-up routine given by a foul-mouthed politically incorrect comic. This is perhaps both a strength and a weakness since in a sense, that’s all this film is. A film set in Bruges was always going to be pretty, after all. The plot itself is over-elaborate, as the characters themselves admit. The acting and characterisation is somewhat dodgy. The one thing that works without reservation is the comedy.
Review continues below...
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With the acting, Colin Farrell as Ray is the worst offender. His bag of facial tics and hunched body language is presumably supposed to be a sign of his guilt and depression. Brendan Gleeson gives a much more measured and realistic performance as Ken. But the Ken character is too affable to be convincing as a professional killer, even when his backstory is explained. He is the contract killer equivalent of a tart with a heart. Thankfully, the real prostitutes in the film are not played as tarts with hearts. Denise has moved from Amsterdam to Bruges, hoping to ‘get a better price for my pussy here.’
Some of the comic scenes are executed so masterfully that they could be used as boilerplates for a thousand derivative jokes. Think of the famous tower climbing sequence, for example, where the Americans tourists are first bluntly insulted by Ray and then Ken arrives and – trying to be helpful – manages to insult them in the same way. Perfect timing and the inadvertent second insult is a superb punchline. And in another writerly echo, this scene sets up the tower as the location of the final shoot out.
As in Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking, much of the drama and comedy from In Bruges comes from bad men trying to find a pragmatic solution to the obstacles that their sin has created in their lives. An example is when Ken is on the phone and pretends to send Ray out on an errand so that crime boss Harry can explain that he wants Ken to shoot Ray. Or the subsequent dialogue where Ken has to backtrack to Harry after letting it slip that Ray hasn’t really enjoyed being in Bruges.
Personal Score: 8/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.